This blog was featured on First Descent’s Out Living It blog. First Descent’s is a non-profit that offers young adult cancer survivors (FREE) adventure trips where they learn the healing power of community and nature through participating in activities such as kayaking, rock climbing and surfing. In September 2016, I attended a First Descents Surf Program in Santa Cruz, California. Read about that here. If you’re interested in learning more about this wonderful organization, check out their website, https://firstdescents.org.
If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you that cancer is a sneaky trickster. The disease invaded every corner of my life and just when I think I’ve got it figured out, it jumps up and grabs me from behind. It’s latest surprise – anxiety.
I was diagnosed three years ago. In retrospect, it’s pretty incredible anxiety only recently crept into the equation. For some reason, I thought I would get by unscathed by this common side effect of cancer.
My relationship with anxiety started one morning in March. I woke up to a missed call from my doctor’s office. It wasn’t even my oncologists office, but the mere presence of a doctor’s number in my call log triggered a misfire in my brain causing me paralyzing fear. I could not do anything the entire day but obsess about how I was going to suffer and die. Instead, I spent my waking hours crying, clenching every muscle and felt as if my lungs were closing in on themselves. The next day, I was fine.
A few weeks later, it happened again.
I often see articles suggesting anxiety victims to relax, exercise, meditate, get enough sleep, focus on the positive, etc. Admittedly, I might have even doled out some of this terrible advice myself in the past. After much thought, I realized the reason this is bad advice is because it’s not specific enough. Talking with my therapist, she explained that in the midst of anxiety, our brains do not function sufficiently where we can even come up with ideas to make ourselves feel better. She then urged me to create an Anxiety Reduction Plan consisting of specific activities I can execute when anxiety strikes. Here’s what I came up with for myself:
Go for a walk, run or to yoga
Call a friend to hang out
Memorize, write out and repeat to myself (I can now recite three Maya Angelou poems, the seven axioms of yoga teacher training and countless famous quotes)
Do a (yoga) forward fold (this pose has been proven to reduce anxiety)
Close my eyes and take 10 (or 100) deep breaths
Write a reminder message on my hand (“You’re okay,” is my go-to)
Write a list of 100 things I’m grateful for
Clean the fridge, floors, garage (I love organizing)
Go to a park with some markers and a coloring book
Send a card or gift to someone I’m thinking about
Do a random act of kindness
Take a bath or shower (something about water and being clean makes me happy)
Create and execute a schedule (7-7:30 drink coffee and catch-up on news, 7:30-8 shower and get ready, 8-12 work, 12-1 lunch, etc., etc. Sometimes, I just go through the motions, but it’s better than obsessing all day)
Now, when I wake up and feel the walls closing in, I pull out my sheet of paper and start running down the list. As a disclaimer, I’ll admit that going through these motions does not always take away or reduce the anxiety, but for stretches of time I am redirected, which provides doses of solace.
As it turns out, my therapist and I are not on the brink of discovering a new physiological method. I recently listened to the Good Life Project podcast and later found a Ted Talk describing the approach the American Psychological Association calls, Positive Activity Interventions. Their studies also show being told or trained to “think positive” and/or confronting past trauma isn’t enough. Instead, their research revealed consistent simple actions, such as those listed above, not only make the miserable less miserable, but, over time, reinforce positive states of mind and improve levels of happiness.
So, what’s on your plan? Now, write it down, fold it up and put it in your wallet. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it.
Listen to The Good Life Project podcast: On Awe, Positive Actions, Anxiety and Depression
Read the full study, Upregulating the positive affect system in anxiety and depression: Outcomes of a positive activity intervention
Watch the Ted Talk, The New Era of Positive Psychology: